Seán Ó Riada was a composer and bandleader, and perhaps the single most influential figure in the renaissance of traditional Irish music from the 1960s, through his participation in Ceoltóirí Chualann, his compositions, his writings and his broadcasts on the topic.
Born John Reidy in Cork City, he was educated at St Finbarr’s College, Farranferris. He played the violin, piano and organ and studied the Greek and Latin classics at University College Cork, graduating in 1952. While at College, Ó Riada was the auditor of the UCC Philosophical Society. In the same year he became assistant director for Radio Éireann. He married Ruth Coughlan in 1953. During the evening he played piano with dance bands. In 1955 Ó Riada left his prestigious job, his wife and his newborn son Peadar, and moved to Italy and France, adopting a wild bohemian lifestyle. While studying composition under Aloys Fleischman he wrote avant-garde music. He drank heavily, and acquired a passion for expensive fast cars. Over the next ten years Ó Riada wrote several orchestral pieces called Nomos. The third was left incomplete and some of the others took years to finish. None of them was publicly performed more than once. Ruth went in pursuit of her husband and found him living in poverty in Paris. She persuaded relatives to give them money and brought him back to Ireland, where he became musical director of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin for five years. At about this time he changed his name from John Reidy to Seán Ó Riada, after giving the subject much thought. A much more accurate (indeed the above account includes many fallacies) and detailed account of the early years is given in Dr. Tomás Ó Canainn’s biography of Ó Riada.
As a classical composer Ó Riada’s real strength was for music of the theatre and film. In 1959 he scored a documentary film by George Morrison called Mise Eire (I Am Ireland). It is about the founding of the Republic of Ireland. It has repeatedly been used in other documentaries and is available on CD, together with other film music – Saoirse? (1960) and An Tine Bheo (The Living Fire). The recording is conducted by Ó Riada himself. These works combine traditional Irish tunes and “sean-nos” (old style) songs with an orchestral arrangement. Ralph Vaughan Williams had already done this sort of thing with English folk music, but in 1950s Ireland traditional music was still held in low regard by some elements of Irish society. His first attempt to combine Irish song with the classical tradition was in 1958 when an Irish radio station in Cork commissioned a short work. Mise Eire brought him national acclaim and allowed him to start a series of programmes on Irish radio called Our Musical Heritage. Ó Riada told people that one should listen to sean-nos song either as a child would listen or as if they were songs from India.
Between 1961 and 1969 Ã“ Riada was leader of a group called Ceoltóirí Chualann. Although they played in concert halls dressed in a black suits with white shirts and black bow ties, they played traditional songs and tunes. An ordinary ceilidh band or show-band would have musicians who competed with each other to grab the attention of the audience. Ceoltóirí Chualann played sparse lucid arrangements. Ó Riada sat in the middle at front playing bodhran, a hand-held frame-drum. This was an instrument that had almost died out, being played only by small boys in street parades. Ceilidh bands generally had jazz-band drum-kits. Ó Riada also wanted to use the clarsach or wire-strung harp in the band, but as these were as yet unavailable, he played the harpsichord instead – the nearest sound to a clarsach. The harpsichord he used on a regular basis was made by Cathal Gannon. Unknown to Ó Riada, Irish folk music was being played ensemble-style in London pubs, but for most people of Ireland this was the first time they heard these tunes played by a band. The membership of Ceoltóirí Chualann overlapped with membership of The Chieftains, so it is surprising that the six albums they recorded are not better known. They recorded the soundtrack of the film Playboy of the Western World (original play by John Millington Synge) in 1963. Their last public performance was in 1969, and issued as the album Ó Riada Sa Gaiety.
In 1964 Ó Riada moved to Cuil Aodha in West Cork, an Irish-speaking area. He established Cor Chuil Aodha, a male voice choir. He turned toward church choral music, including Aifreann 2 (premiered posthumously in 1979). Other works include Five Greek Epigrams and Holdlerin Songs. In 1996 Kate Bush recorded the Peadar Ó Doirnín lyric Mna na hEireann set to music and made famous by Sean Ó Riada and Ceoltóirí Chualann, for the compilation album Common Ground. Mna na hEireann, as performed by the Chieftains, is used as a romantic overture throughout the Stanley Kubrick movie Barry Lyndon and is the basis of The Christians’ 1989 single Words. Ó Riada did a setting of the poetry of Thomas Kinsella, who returned the favour by praising Ó Riada in verse. He became involved in Irish politics and was a friend of several influential leaders. Ó Riada and Ruth both drank regularly at a local pub which still advertises itself as his being his local. He suffered cirrhosis of the liver. He was flown to King’s College Hospital, London for treatment and died there. He is buried in St Gobnait’s graveyard, Ballyvourney, County Cork. Willie Clancy played at his funeral.
Two schools are named ‘Scoil Uí Riada’ after him: a Gaelscoil in Kilcock in (Co. Kildare), and another, in Bishoptown, Cork City. Also, there is a lifesized statue erected in his honor in Cúil Aodha’s local church (Sépéil Naomh Gobnait). It was unveiled in 2008 by his aunt and the members of Ceoltóirí Chulainn.
In April 2010 Ceoltóirí Chualann reformed under the leadership of Seán’s son Peader to play a tribute concert in Dublin’s Liberty Hall.